As soon as President Barack Obama announced his plan to thaw long-frozen diplomatic relations with Cuba, the speculation began about what it would mean for the island.

Would it help the Castro brothers? Empower activists? Create jobs?

There’s no question that the Cuban people will benefit from increased trade and tourism. But what about the American people? What do they get out of this deal?

Fortunately, it turns out that Cuba has plenty to offer Americans, and I’m not just talking about rum and cigars.

Take its disaster management planning, which the United Nations, the International Red Cross, and Oxfam consider an international model.

Cuba’s located in the path of devastating and frequent hurricanes. Yet it’s proven much better than us at evacuating vulnerable residents and curbing property damage.

What sets Cuba apart? For one thing, intensive community engagement.

All Cuban adults take part in programs designed to teach them how to help evacuate their neighbors. This includes a national hurricane drill once a year, which makes it easier for government officials to spot vulnerabilities.

Cuban pharmacy


Those massive drills require national coordination: All of Cuba’s 15 provinces and 169 municipalities have their own intricate disaster plans. Additionally, Cuba has fine-tuned its public health system to make sure victims of hurricanes and other catastrophes get the care they need right away.

In fact, Cuba’s highly trained medical brigades help train their peers in other countries. Cuba even mobilized a special unit of over 1,500 doctors to aid the United States after Hurricane Katrina, but Washington rebuked the offer.

Speaking of health care, Cuba is a global leader in medical technology.

All told, the Cuban biotech industry holds around 1,200 international patents and markets drugs and vaccines sold in more than 50 countries, according to the World Health Organization. But none of them are available in the United States.

Restoring normal trade relations between our countries could make life better for millions of Americans suffering from a range of diseases.

These include the 29 million Americans who have diabetes. If the embargo ends, they’ll get access to Heberprot P — a Cuban-developed drug that reduces the risk of amputation caused by ulcers in diabetic patients by nearly 80 percent. That could make a life-changing difference for the 80,000 Americans who suffer amputations because of the disease each year.

Cuban scientists have also developed an advanced drug that effectively destroys coronary clots, an innovative burn treatment, and vaccines for meningitis, hepatitis, and several kinds of cancer. They’ve made advances in developing a vaccine against HIV-AIDS and a produced a cure for the skin disease vitiligo.

For many Americans, then, ending the embargo isn’t just an ideological question. It’s a matter of life and death.

However, it’ll take more than presidential decrees to reach the point where Cubans and Americans can work together. Ending the embargo requires an act of Congress. And neither chamber appears interested enough in moving forward on that front.

Change won’t come until Americans put pressure on Congress. What are we waiting for?

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Felicia Gustin

Felicia Gustin is a writer who first visited Cuba in 1974. She worked as a journalist in Havana from 1982-92 and still travels to the island regularly. An earlier version of this piece appeared at
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